The bumper sticker has it right: "Where the hell are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?" I take this question as my "point of purchase," as my granddad used to say. For me it is no longer a question; it is now, rather, a point of view. Over the span of my fifty-some years as an adult Christian I have slowly come to the conclusion that our Western civilization, if not the entire planet, is indeed "going to hell in a hand basket." We have, in my opinion, already passed the point of no return.I Along with my own admittedly amateur study of history, I have as well witnessed the steady disintegration of the value system that has served as the fabric of Western culture and society. From the conclusion of World War II, through the "red scare" and the Vietnam war, right up to our current displays of political and environmental arrogance and ignorance, our downward spiral has become increasingly obvious. To be sure, I am well aware that this dismal point of view, as well as the factors that have led me to it, is highly debatable. However, from where I sit, this apparently pessimistic perspective seems to be the only realistic conclusion to draw. I only ask that the reader indulge me this simple point of purchase from which to argue my case. But first allow me to give a brief account of what seem to me to be the chief causal factors that have led us to the brink of disaster. The major cause of the slow but inevitable demise of the West is flat-out, crass selfishness and greed. The relentless encroachment of capitalism, both individual and corporate, has become the primary vehicle for our unabated love of money, which is, in fact, the root of all evil. Blind, free enterprise, abetted by rank individualism, has driven us to set aside a basic concern for the common good, for the well-being of society and culture as a whole. Nearly every major facet of our culture has been infiltrated by overt and blatant materialism. The arts, sports, both entertainment and news media, religion, education, and most especially politics are not only exploited and manipulated by gross commercialism, but they have actually been transformed by it. Why is it that our sports pages, to cite but one example, are often more concerned with salary talk than with box scores? Why, to offer another case in point, are school lunches provided by fast food enterprises? I clearly remember how shocked I was, even as an average high school history student, to learn that, in addition to the three branches of the United States government, there exists a "lobby system." I wondered how it could be legal for various business and special interest groups to hang around in the lobbies of the legislatures seeking to influence our lawmakers. That was fifty odd years ago. As we all know, this basic undermining of the democratic process is vastly magnified today. Not only have we come to take this "fourth branch" of the government for granted, the majority of the American public is unaware of how many millions of dollars these business interests contribute to the election and support of their chosen representatives and causes. Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Most of us do not even know that in most Western European countries such practices are illegal, though admittedly practiced on a much smaller scale, and that these governments finance the political campaigns of all candidates equally and sensibly. II The next question is, what manner of life should one embody if we are in fact in this hand basket heading straight for you know where? How shall we then live? What is the shape of Christian faithfulness in such a context? How can a person go on living and serving if he or she holds out no hope of recovery, of avoiding the slide into to self-destruction? At least the prophet Jeremiah had the hope that his people would return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, even if he and his generation would not. What do we do today if we actually accept the conclusion that we can have no such hope? My initial response to these questions is to suggest that faithfulness has very little if anything to do with hope as such. Faithfulness is not dependent on any sort of emotional state or on a confidence that the future will be any better than the past or the present. As I understand Christian commitment and morality, they are not based on consequences or hoped for goals, but rather on integrity and responsibility as ends in themselves. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) says very little about how the Samaritan felt toward the man in the ditch. It does, however, say a great deal about what he did for him. Whether or not there is the possibility of altering the course of history toward something substantially better — let alone toward some final fulfillment of God's kingdom on earth — is essentially irrelevant to the question of what it means to be faithful. For a Christian, the means — namely the quality and character of one's life — is in fact the only true goal. We seek to express and share God's love and grace simply for their own sake, since this is who God is and what God does in our life in community.One does not base faithfulness on hoped for results. God's call to faith and love is unconditional and unilateral, independent of beliefs about the future. III Nevertheless, as my wife Mari so succinctly put it when confronted with my seemingly pessimistic perspective, we may say: "So what? Are we not still responsible for the quality of life in the hand-basket?" And this is where the notion of an "as if" ethic comes into play. My understanding of the Christian way of life is that we are called to act "as if" we have hope, even in its absence. The call to faithful discipleship is an end in itself. We are to engage in loving and helpful behavior even if and when we do not believe the big picture can be changed for the better, because this is who God is and what God does. Specific situations and conditions can, of course, be improved, but one need not believe that these changes will lead to the ultimate overall good in order to participate in such concrete changes. So, when confronted with the horrendous confusion of the "golden rule" with the "American way," Christians should behave "as if" things can and will change for the better, whether or not they do in fact so believe. When you are behind by twenty points with two minutes to go in a basketball game, you still continue to play "as if" you could win the game, even though you know it is impossible. Why? Because that is what true integrity and faithfulness as a competitor entail. It is simply a matter of commitment. As the coaches always told us, such commitment builds character and as such it is its own reward.This is why I am unable to relate my own understanding of Christian faith to the common distinction made between optimism and pessimism. Generally speaking Christians are expected to be optimistic, that is, hopeful in all times and situations. In my view, faithfulness to God's call has little or nothing to do with being optimistic. In fact, commitment based on hope may well lead to bitter disillusionment and loss of faith. I like to think of myself as a realist, but when I try to express my perspective on these issues I am generally accused of being pessimistic. But none of these sorts of distinctions applies to questions of Christian faith and responsibility. There are ways in which my perspective is similar to the "Christian Realism" espoused by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. Individual Christians are called to be faithful irrespective of the outcome in their lives or in the world around them. At the societal level of human existence there will always be hard choices to make between the lesser of two or more evils. To be sure, and to quote Niebuhr himself, "a little more justice is a whole lot better than a little less justice." Even so, there is neither reason nor need to link Christian faithfulness to the belief or hope that eventually everything will work out and get better. In fact, just the opposite seems to be closer to the truth. Thus banking on the Kingdom of God becoming a reality — either because God will make it happen through force in some catastrophic apocalypse, or having it come about through more peaceful processes — is really beside the point. The real issue is simply one of integrity and faithfulness to a way of life that embodies love and justice regardless of the outcome. Of course, in every context one works for peace and justice, for love and creativity, "as if" one believes these goals are attainable. But this belief must not be the basis of our action. The motivation for faithfulness lies not in hoped for consequences, desirable though they may be, but in the integrity of the faithful act itself. IV One way to bring this perspective into focus is by considering the unspoken implications of Ernest Thayer's famous poem "Casey at the Bat."1 Casey may be seen as symbolizing the optimistic hope for the world represented by Mudville, while the fans in the stands may be thought of as our own version of the "stricken multitude." The umpire, like our own "wheels of justice," may well have been crooked from the outset. The tragedy captured in this poem is precisely that of what happens when too much hope is placed on an idealized belief in the future. Everything depends on Casey hitting the home run, but the great hero fails to come through. Thus, when the game is over, the hopes of the fans are dashed, and there is "no joy in Mudville."
What is of crucial significance for the point I am trying to make is the behavior of Casey's teammates, a guy named Flynn and one Jimmy Blake. To be sure, most of us have long since forgotten these names, let alone the important roles they played in the game. As the poem says, "The former was a hoodoo and the latter was a cake." In short, nothing much, if anything, was hoped for from these two players who preceded Casey in the batting order. Moreover, Mudville was behind 4 to 2 in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Any hope for a victorious outcome depended on Casey coming through with a homer in the end. However, "there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat." Nevertheless,
Flynn let fly a single, to the wonderment of alland Blake the much despised tore the cover off the ball.And when the dust had settled and people saw what had occurred
there was Jimmy safe at second, and Flynn a-huggin' third.1
Now the mighty Casey comes "advancing to the bat." Casey was full of confidence and his fans truly believed that their hero would, here at the climax of the game, hit the winning home run. The stage was set for the usual optimistic happy ending, and everyone was full of hope that the good guys would pull it out in the end.It is quite surprising that Mr. Thayer's poem ever became an American classic, telling as it does the story of a hero's failure. Losing, after all, is a very un-American thing to do! There was no joy in Mudville, "for mighty Casey [had] struck out." This poem is, in fact, a genuine American tragedy. It goes against everything we as Christians and/or Americans have been taught to think about the relationship between hopeful commitment and the ultimate outcome of things. It undercuts our implicit trust in optimism and the triumph of the good.But the real axis of the poem lies in the behavior of Flynn and Blake. They did what faithful ball players do after all — they went out and got on base. They had integrity. Note well that nothing is said about the two of them pinning their hopes on the hometown hero. Flynn and Blake are the true heroes of the story, and I claim them as an appropriate symbol of the "as if" ethic. They performed "as if" they believed the mighty Casey would come through in the end and hit the game-winning homer. Indeed, if the crowd's estimate of their abilities is anything to go by, they clearly played way over their heads. One can picture a post-game interview with these two unsung jocks in the Mudville locker room. When asked if they were surprised and disappointed by Casey's arrogant and self-centered failure, I can imagine them saying something like, "No, not really. We've always known Casey to be something of a hot dog, and so we didn't really believe he would even hit us in, let alone hit the game-winning home run." "Why then did you try so hard to get on base?" an interviewer might ask. "Well," I imagine them saying, "that is what ball players do, isn't it? They do whatever they can to get into scoring position. We were just trying to do our very best."The final outcome of the game is a completely separate thing. Flynn and Blake had integrity and were faithful to their calling as participating team members. As a very successful coach and friend of mine once said, "Winning is not what is ultimately important. Preparing to win is what's important." Flynn and Blake acted "as if" they believed Casey would hit them in to score, even though they may not have believed or even hoped that he would do so. They acted faithfully as ball players because that is what real ball players do. Getting on base is an end in itself! The point lies not in what they did or did not believe, but rather in how they actually played, in the quality of their performance.
The same is true of the world situation today. It would appear to some that the United States, our "mighty Casey," has indeed struck out. The idealism and optimism that previously motivated American individual and governmental behavior has now given way to selfish individualism and greed. The great new Global Economy spreads capitalism around the world while depending absolutely on the exploitation and oppression of at least a third of the world's population. And thus we find ourselves in the proverbial handbasket, on our way to decay and destruction. There is no joy in Mudville! In the Christian ethic, however, we are called to live sacrificially for God and neighbor, for friend and foe, entirely for its own sake, regardless of hoped-for consequences. This ethic is not grounded in duty (a la Immanuel Kant), or in consequences (after John Stuart Mill), and not even in virtue (as with Alasdair MacIntyre). Rather, it is grounded in a commitment to the God of love and grace, in a response to who God is and how God acts in the world and in the lives of the faithful. In short, we are called to live "as if" we believe the good and the right will triumph. Such faithfulness is an end in itself. It is its own reward. Just go get on base!
1Ernest Lawrence Thayer, "Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic, Sung in 1888," Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff (New York: Library of America, 2002) 14.